Multilingual Co-workers in New York City
>> Multilingual work environments were rare in the 1960s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin when I entered the workforce. They are still fairly rare there today.
Milwaukee prides itself on its ties to Europe, but the reality is that the children of the early 1900s immigrants quickly dropped their parent's native languages and habits to avoid being labeled "old fashioned."
The Midwest erased Old World ways so thoroughly that it wasn't until the grandkids' generation that folk fairs were initiated to capitalize on the past and bring in tourist dollars. Milwaukee's Summerfest and popular summer-long ethnic events are the result of modern marketing based on a view of history that never occurred on our shores.
Today, Ellis Island visitors learn about the struggles of early 20th century immigrants who arrived in New York before the invention of jeans, reliable phone connections, roll-on luggage, digital assistants, planes, and low-priced, round-trip tickets. The fact is that immigration didn't stop flowing after the first major waves. It simply became more efficient and certainly, more comfortable.
Unlike Milwaukee, typical East Coast residents are from all over the world. Out of my 100 co-workers at my first Manhattan job, only ten were English-speaking Americans. The rest came from Russia, China, France, Trinidad, Brazil, Sweden and India.
In eastern New Jersey, for example, phone books are half written in Spanish because, as I understand it, there are more Cubans in New Jersey than in Cuba or Miami. Chinese also settled in New Jersey as well as in Manhattan's lower east side, and near the New Jersey-side of the George Washington Bridge, there is a large Japanese community.
Mixing It Up
American-born Americans assume that they make up the residential majority and because of that, determine proper English usage. This is becoming less the case (if it ever was in the first place). The common phrase "he say me," for example, is expressed by Cubans, South Americans, French, Russians and Chinese, meaning "he said to me." And, of course, the plural form of describing quantities is rapidly becoming replaced - "Buy two watch. Ten dollar."
Our English language has always been in a state of flux, with European intra-continental immigration determining much of what we're saying today. I discussed this situation with historians Jim Dunnigan and Al Nofi, with Jim responding that English is actually a German dialect, heavily influenced by French and, to a lesser extent, Gaelic.
Jim added that Germans began moving to Britain some 1500 years ago and pushed the native Celts around. Some Scandinavians also wandered in until the French nobles (of Norse ancestry) took over in the 11th Century. Al noted that after the Norman Conquest (1066), the upper classes in England spoke mostly French for about 300 years. In fact, some of the kings probably didn't speak English at all.
Having lived most of my life in a linguistically homogeneous area, I find it highly interesting to communicate with people who have celebrated a different set of national holidays, understood history in terms of wars, and related to religious issues in a variety of ways, if at all.
Unlike the early 1900s immigrants, today's easily stay in touch with their families abroad. Many return to their native homes at rates cheaper than they can get to fly across the United States. Some even visit their homelands over long weekends!
Our current immigrants are especially likely to be multilingual, enabling them to communicate across cultural lines. Americans usually are not and from what I can see, as the world gets smaller, this limitation will eventually become a distinct disadvantage.
Of course, it's easy for English-speaking people to be around others who try to make themselves understood. It's more valuable, however, for English-only speakers to go out of their way to understand what is being said. They can do this by learning additional languages, starting with Spanish or Chinese, as well as by conducting a crash course on modern history.
If you've ever been in a room where multiple languages are being spoken, you'll understand the situation, or more to the point, you won't understand at all.
PS: To learn more about Jim Dunnigan and Al Nofi, visit www.strategypage.com, an up-to-date resource site on the status of world conflict.
Articleby Karen Little. Illustration of Berlitz Language Center is based on their office in Manhattan's Financial District. First published on 9/9/2000. All rights reserved by www.Littleviews.com.